In partnership with the Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Cecil Browne’s ‘A Hat for Lemer’ is the winning entry from Canada and Europe.
August 1858. St Vincent.
Rain pelt the whole night in the mountains. It silence the animals that love to break my sleep, it join the wind and lash my tiny wooden shack where the volcano ridge break for a bit of flat. Next morning the sun battle back so fierce the storm seem like a bad dream. After such a stormy night, the ground still slippery, strange to spot someone struggling up the slope to my home as I’m coconut-oiling my hair. Caribs and runaways hunting wild pigs I could understand, but a white man? And alone so deep in the mountains?
From the narrow slit of a window I catch the figure sweeping back the bushes like a paddler in a canoe. A heavy man with a red bulging food face. Mud splatter his trousers up to the belt, and the green jacket holding back his stomach catch a caking too. This man brave, what could he want with me? I slip out the back door and take a path through the forest. Sometimes, best to greet an intruder hugging a tree.
He make to take a step forward, his eyes on the house as if it might disappear if he look away. Before he could tell himself, ‘Not far to go,’ he fall flat on his back.
He stagger to his feet, furious with some dry stick he didn’t notice in his path. When he finish brushing off his clothes he find me beside him, my narrow face soft but closed to him.
‘You tripped me,’ he growl, ‘you frigging throw me down!’
The blue veins in his neck pulse, this local-born Creole white who blend our language with his. But I don’t step back when he snarl and grunt. He on Crown land, my land. I cross my arms and stare back.
‘My name is Noah Brisbane,’ he say after a while. ‘My horseman Mel tell me you know the island well. You guide people across the mountains and find those who get lost for a small sum.’
I dig my toes into the mud and force my body up the hill to my little garden patch, leaving him there muttering. Wheezing turn to cursing as he stumble up behind me. I almost finish picking herbs at the side of the house by the time he reach.
‘I own the estate nine miles from Kingstown capital.’
Nine miles south of Kingstown would place him in the Caribbean Sea, nine north in Mespo Valley. West would find the town of Layou, where Reverend Alexander ship in his 200 slaves from Antigua because he care for them so much. The Brisbane now squatting on a stone in my yard must mean east, then, the Diamond Estate. I begin to pack a crocus bag with herbs while he sweep the sweat from his forehead: my work is in listening, I ask when I’m ready.
Brisbane take my silence to mean that I curious, so he say, ‘You want to know why I’m here, I suppose?’
I don’t answer him. My herbs are my living.
‘Well two weeks ago I invited an Englishman to my home. Wesley String. The Methodist Church in England sent him to St Vincent to report on the schools, but he’s vanished.’
‘Schools?’ Brisbane ask the question for me, then continue.
‘You remember emancipation in 1838? Well schools spring up on coconut-palm stilts. And where schools rise inspectors follow.’
Fuck Brisbane. Emancipation handed some planters thousands of pounds. If February slip by without a fete then March pay with three.
‘How long he here?’
I sniff a bundle of thyme and let Brisbane carry on.
‘I put on a small feast for String. Beef, red snapper, ham, breadfruit, bananas. We have to show our guests the best of the island, not true? My cook Eva did us proud. I pay her an extra shilling.’
Brisbane flip his head back a little as his eyes close on the memory of the meal.
‘A chill hit us late in the evening so I sent for a brandy. My wife Georgina changed into her green silk dress and String drained his glass. “Another tiddly bottle?” he suggested. “Hats off to a new friendship, eh Brisbane?”’
Creole-white life not our life, but Brisbane too sweet in his memories to care.
‘String took his breakfast early on the Monday so he could go and inspect a school. He show me his schedule, another one on Thursday. “Then join us for the Governor’s dinner up Fort Charlotte,” I suggest to him. “Seven o’clock sharp.” But he never arrive. I had my men out looking five days, but no good.’
I was ready to talk for myself.
‘You try the taverns in Kingstown?’ I say. ‘They tell me some men can’t down their rum unless women serve them.’
‘Not String. He rarely touched liquor – he swore to my wife when she was showing him to his bedroom chamber.’
‘Religious men toss their Bible overboard in the middle of the Atlantic.’
‘Some perhaps, but not String.’
‘What you think happened to him?’
‘If I believed in spirits I would say an evil one bundled him away to Dominica. I just pray no harm come to him.’
‘Caribs don’t take to people on their land. Trespassing or plain lost, no difference. Every white is a British soldier, they don’t spare the poison arrow.’
‘How much you paying to find him?’
Magistrate Anderson earn £32 a month – I read this in the Gazette newspaper – so I tell Brisbane, ‘Eight. Or send your cook to search for him.’
‘I can’t raise above three.’
‘Then particular on your way down the volcano.’
‘Eight, you said? Call it seven then.’
Seven pounds still need two hands to count, so I nod.
‘Work fast,’ Brisbane say. ‘String vessel leaving in a month, we have to find him so he can fulfil his mission.’
‘Which school he visit?’
‘Stubbs, two rivers away.’
‘The Grimbles, ginger-haired mulatto brother and sister.’
Brisbane describe String to me as I guide him back down – tall, bald, love a felt hat. Three men waiting for Brisbane at the base of the volcano, and four black horses that could pass for brown. Clothes and animals all caked with mud, earth don’t separate black and white. As they about to ride off Brisbane say, ‘Send me news soon as you locate String.’ But not before his horseman Mel fix me a look that say, ‘Come find me.’
One missing Englishman. Brisbane trek through thick bamboo forest and sharp cane leaves for the sake of one white man! On every barracks he cross lame chigger-foot children and men who work their body down to the bones and shrink back to boys. Women groan in agony when they shift from raw stomachs onto sore backs. But Brisbane willing to ride through hellhole estates, where the stinking breeze make you want to faint, all because of some blasted inspector?
When I think of the hole my family escape I thank the mother, who encourage my father. He lead the family off the Soleyn property when I turn twelve. One dark damp night that drive the workers into the barracks shared with heat and stubborn flies, we steal away and head north towards the volcano. We stumble and we slip. We shelter under trees high and low. Whole night we journey till the sharp stones of the river bed tell us we arrive.
Even the trackers with their hound dogs fear this tangle mountain forest. Creaking, ghost-like bamboo trees and squawking animals scare them away, and the stink of volcano sulphur in the air protect us. We settle into a thin life, creeping by some estate at night to barter and to sing with the people, then crawling home in darkness, or humming under a kindly moonlight.
What Brisbane know about me? That I live on fruits, vegetables, the wild pigs and agouti we trap and the crayfish and mullets that cram the nearby streams? That the Lomond family I guide to a mountain home race back to the comfort of flies, cockroaches and mangy dogs that infest the Punnett estate? That on rainy nights I peep out my wooden shack and long for someone to see out the storm with?
Farthings, shillings, pretty pound notes. I see them at the market exchanging for sugar, for fruits, for meat. Shillings I handle, but my fingers never brush a pound note. A house, a bed, three chairs, maybe four. A coal pot, plates, enamel cups. Seven pounds could build two good-size houses. But where to begin to search for some man with a stupid name?
I close my eyes, thank the Moravians who teach me to read, write and reckon, and pray like a child who rather die than separate from her mother.
No good starting this mystery in the capital, my feet tell me when I set out at dawn next morning. String probably blind-drunk in some gutter there. Sailors and corporals grab a bottle soon as they dock, three comforts satisfy men. If not, String lodging with some grateful woman, clothing her children and providing corned pork and bread for their supper. The Grimbles see him last but Mel send me a sign, which one to visit first?
Sun roasting my four thick plaits, it take me the whole morning to walk to Stubbs. My soles accustom to distance, but they ache, and the rest of my body join in. I spot the teacher directly I enter the schoolyard: a meagre man in a green suit squatting under a hog-plum tree crunching peanuts.
‘You here to enrol a child?’ he ask.
The sea close by. I watch the waves roll up to the black sand, froth, then race back to the big blue.
Brother Grimble rise and wipe his mouth.
‘Best school in the parish. A Englishman come here trying to tell me how to teach children. Some woman nibble his neck, he should thank God I didn’t bust his red lip for balance.’
Thirty pupils on the school register Grimble draw from his pocket to show me. I spot two sleeping under a cedar tree, and five on the beach flinging stones taunting the sea. The Moravians placed the Gazette newspaper alongside the Bible to teach us when I was a girl, now, twenty years later, Grimble ask me to watch the pupils dance. He call a girl in a blue tunic with two fat plaits sticking out a brown felt hat.
‘June September,’ he say, ‘the best on the island.’
‘Show the woman how you dance for the Inspector.’
June shake her head.
‘No, Mr Grimble.’
‘Dance, I say!’
I tap Grimble on the shoulder and give him a gentle smile.
Grimble stuff the register in his pocket and tighten his body like he intend to cuff me. His mule catch his mood and start pissing in the bushes nearby. Grimble mount the pissing mule and ride away. I wait for the children to set off home then begin trailing him to Vigie. And is only then June pretty tunic and felt hat cause me to consider.
Creoles and whites own horses, for those who can’t afford higher animals, a mule, donkey or footing the road is your pleasure. I limp back home from Vigie and sit by a cool stream soaking my feet. Later, squatting on my dirt floor, I pick at my smoked herring and bread supper. Further up the volcano, my parents have their own rude home. I visit them to check they ride out the storm.
My grey-haired father fall silent soon as I arrive. He still aggrieved since I reject a tailor suitor from Adelphi he bring to my home. He barely lift his eyes to greet me now. I tell them about Brisbane, when I mention the amount my mother pause twisting her hair, turn to the four corners of the hut and imagine a house ten times the size. ‘Lemer,’ my father mumble when I leaving, ‘Brisbane want to rise in the Methodist Church. Careful.’
Back in my house Mel come to my mind as I fix the old sheet round my body to block the night chill. What message he could have for me? I slip onto Brisbane estate next day to find out.
The women crossing me wearing coarse dresses that have more dust and holes than cloth, so I fit in easy. I seek out a short coconut tree leaning to the left that could take the curl of my weary back. From this tree on the bank of Diamond River I watch Mel grooming his horse. My cinnamon smell probably drift to him because, after a little while, he cry out, ‘Lemer!’.
A brown felt hat sit high on Mel broad head, then he naked down to the waist.
‘You watching me long?’
I approach the horse and stroke it. ‘No.’
‘She beautiful, not true?’
‘She have a kind face.’
‘Black Belle she name, but I call she Pretty Eva.’
‘Like Brisbane cook?’
‘How you mean?’
‘Eva walk off Diamond.’
‘When? Why she leave?’
‘Three days after String come to the house. Brisbane does French she when she take his breakfast, and pay she five shillings a time.’
‘Yes French. See Black Belle here, Brisbane present she to me. Why? To lock the door when he Frenching. I don’t know what happen between she, String and Brisbane, but whole day Eva anxious. She take thirty pounds from Brisbane money chest and Wednesday night, gone she gone.’
Some women heading their bundle of washing take the turning for the river just then, I duck into the bushes so they don’t see the horseman talking to me. So early into my journey yet I already feel sorry I sell my peace.
But whether for shillings or pounds, a task is a task. So the next day, on the mule I borrow from my mother, I ride to String’s house in Lowmans. The front door lock, so I climb through a window. A Bible on his desk, seven felt hats dot the bed. A trunk sit in a corner, but the three locks too tough for my fingers. If String join a bunch of sailors roaming the island while he prepare his report, wouldn’t surprise me.
From Lowmans I ride direct to the market in Kingstown. People from every town or village trade there. Tomatoes, bananas, yams and mangoes aplenty, fowls, pigs and goats mingle. Reach for a fat pumpkin and don’t surprise if you catch a frisky land crab. Let a white go missing or die and the news usually flood the market. Like whites don’t die, they live forever! I don’t stay long at the market though, the breeze bring no mention of String. And where I used to see codfish, plums or sheets, now pretty cotton dresses, shingle, nails and lumber winking at me.
Kingstown a most pretty town, the market and a dozen shops flavour the capital. On Saturdays you can’t move for horses, carts, mules and donkeys in the narrow streets. One distiller family I guide across the island for two shillings call the town food, liquor, fete and flesh. Four parlour taverns line Bay Street, ugly wooden shacks that lean left or right like they dodging the midday sun. In the dirt yard of the first three, rum-soaked men curl up on their side. Their lips red and raw, even flies shun them. The last parlour – Whisper – brick upstairs and downstairs. This would be the place for a foreigner.
Our family trek to the market every week to sell herbs, and field hands, cane cutters, midwives, seamstresses, coopers and messengers make the trip to Kingstown on pay day. Most go for the goods at the market, the rest head direct to the parlours. But a place like Whisper strange to me, the people who rest up there wild, so I hear.
I sit on the cobblestones watching the door, my body tense like the morning I wake and find a snake coil up next to my naked breast. Nights in the mountains don’t trouble me, but this place? As I watch women enter and men stumble out and stagger away, I make the sign of the cross. Lord help and forgive me. I wait till four women shouldering their market baskets squeeze through the door and add one to their number.
Noise hit me, right behind the sweet smell of hot food. Whiskey and rum thicken the cigar smoke. Two men in white strumming cuatros in a corner, soldiers and sailors singing merrily along. Women from the estates in their best clothes parading with soldiers, hugging up so tight like they twine. Parlour women dancing in the middle of the room. Which angel teach them such pretty steps? In long frilly dresses, every hue of black and every shade of white parcel out between them. My coarse brown osnaburg dress just one stitch up from rags, I stare at the women in admiration, in shame.
‘What you want?’
I turn to my right to see who touch me on the shoulder. I find a woman, same age and blackness, with a fragrant smell of ripe cocoa to my sweaty cinnamon. The woman’s purple dress flow down to her ankles. I make to answer but her almond-shape eyes so bewitching she lock the words in my throat.
‘If you looking to join Whisper, sorry.’
I shake my head quick.
‘You searching for somebody then?’
‘A white man, Wesley String.’
‘He tell you to meet him here?’
‘I just have to find him. And quick.’
‘You sound like a country Mary. Outside cooler, follow me.’
Out in the light the woman lower herself on a log and fold her dress between her thighs.
‘Your white man,’ she say, ‘you making his baby?’
‘No. This estate owner pay me to find him.’
‘How he describe?’
‘Tall underneath a felt hat.’
‘Good heap of sizeable men frolic here. Once a ship dock the women can’t rest.’
‘This man resemble a schoolmaster.’
The woman consider. ‘And twin with a fat man?’
Brisbane large, String heighten, so I nod. ‘Maybe.’
‘Those two revel here. Brandy upon whiskey. But the girls couldn’t get a task out of them. Woman-food too rich for some.’
‘They stay late?’
‘Nah. A fresh set of men storm Whisper at dusk, and the teacher and the whale dive deep!’
‘Men only duck when they have something to hide.’
I don’t know what make me do it, but I stoop and stretch for the woman’s hands. They soft and warm. I pray my trembling fingers don’t tell her is the first time I touch another person like this.
She let her fingers rest in mine. I have to stop myself caressing them.
‘Stop by Grenville Street after you find your husband String,’ she say. ‘Ask for Whisper.’
‘You own the tavern?’
‘Yes, country Mary.’
A fever grip me that night. Then a chill. I wrap the sheet around my body, and I feel like my skin roasting. When I peel off the sheet I begin to shiver. My body like it leaving me behind.
The dawn two days later, hugging a guava tree, I watching Brisbane. Most estates have a Big House, some have a Little House too, away from the mansion. Brisbane by his Little House admiring the sea. From Mel’s tale he work on his accounts early, then take his breakfast when the figures balance. More than a fortnight Georgina away visiting her sister – Mel laugh – which woman would leave her husband when he in agony over his friend?
When Brisbane over with the sea he slip into the building and close the door. No Eva this morning. No removing the frilly cotton frock and watching it wriggle to the floor. No closing his eyes in delight while he undo the black drawers that frenzy him. No Frenching.
As Brisbane make to sit before the account book, he feel the give of my thigh. He spring back up.
‘Lemer!’ he cry. ‘How did you get in?’
I don’t answer. I watch his neck spin, searching for some door or window I smash to get in.
‘Who told you I was here?’
Same no answer.
‘Never mind,’ Brisbane mumble, ‘long as you don’t swallow the blasted lies my workers spread.’
‘I know about you and String,’ I say now.
‘You found him?’
‘You write your own commandments.’
‘You talking in riddles. I’m not paying you seven pounds to break into my house and make accusations.’
‘Whisper, Brisbane,’ I say to him. ‘You know the inn on Bay Street?’
‘I know the street. The inn, no.’
‘So wasn’t you staggering out at dusk behind a hatted man couple weeks ago?’
‘Bring the person who told you that tale and I’ll show you a blasted liar.’
I watch Brisbane good. The white in his face steadfast. No dip to pale, no flushing crimson. Who to believe, this estate owner or angel Whisper?
‘Ecclesiastes 3, Brisbane,’ I warn him. ‘You know the verse?’
He grin. ‘Remind me.’
‘Everything in its season.’
Brisbane open the drawer and grab a handful of coins. He spread them clinking on the table in front me.
‘Get out of my chair and leave my property!’
My left hand stop my right from making a fist.
‘I’ll call my men!’
‘If you or your men touch me,’ I say, ‘make sure you don’t sleep tonight.’
The door creak open and a child in a purple tunic and a brown felt hat appear with a tray.
‘Is me, Mr Brisbane. I bring your breakfast. And I bathe in the river like you tell me.’
Brisbane rush over, take the girl by the shoulder and guide her out.
‘Carry the tray back to the Big House, June. I’m taking my breakfast there today.’
June hurry off. Soon as the child leave I turn to Brisbane. ‘Twice seven is fourteen,’ I say.
‘Don’t set foot on my property again unless you have String with you!’
It rain from sunrise to sunset next day, so I sleep off my vexation. My head hot. I pray for matches to burn down Brisbane Little House. Fever grip my body. I lie on my back on the floor listening to the rain pelting, falling asleep, waking, then falling asleep again. In between sleep and wake Whisper come to me, smiling, ‘Come join the angels, Lemer.’
When the fever through with me I set off for Vigie again on foot. Brother Grimble have a grudge against String, wonder if he more than want to bust his lip?
A ginger-haired woman with a felt hat over her face snoozing on a stone in the backyard. She wake quick-quick when she hear my footsteps.
‘Five tens make sixty,’ she say, ‘you have a child to register?’
‘No,’ I say, ‘I looking for String.’
Sister Grimble frown. ‘You in Vigie School, Miss, not some cheap semi-demi shop. No string here.’
Brother Grimble appear from behind a fat mapu tree trunk as if he was hiding there.
‘If String set foot in Stubbs or Vigie School again,’ he warn, ‘he spend his last day on earth.’
‘He proposition me,’ Sister Grimble say. ‘Then he present me this hat when I threaten to report him. Inspector my ginger-mulatto batty.’
Is a long journey to the docks in Kingstown. On the way I think hard about what the Grimbles say about the Englishman. I think about Eva, Georgina, Brisbane – and two houses. People crowding me, wild dreams, felt hats. My head all tangle up.
The docks frenzying when I get there. Carts, porters, messengers, sailors and passengers scrambling like ants to a dead-butterfly banquet. I sit on the beach admiring the blue-green sea and wondering what lie beyond. When my mind settled, I approach the port office.
The clerk of good height. He come at me with pretty, white teeth.
‘The passenger lists,’ I say to him, ‘how much to see them?’
‘Looking cost. Which day you after?’
‘The last fortnight.’
‘Someone else pay to see them?’
‘Some estate horseman. He sit on the dock every day and watch which vessel leaving the island.’
‘I only have a shilling.’
The clerk smile. ‘Come closer and try for a better price.’
I stand same place and cross my arms. He approach and circle me three times like he weaving a spell.
‘Cinnamon,’ he say, bigging his eyes. ‘Pay me the rest in that smell.’
I close my eyes. And sigh.
My father’s words come back to me as I make for Grenville Street. Brisbane have his horseman looking too, what String have that could damage him?
The road to Whisper place have cobblestones in a pretty pattern. Whisper abode upstairs in a brick house. I shout out her name. Before I could call back the word, back-back and run away, the door open.
My skin is there to cover my bones. Whisper body have a softness and shape that make me shy away as she prepare for the parlour tavern. The room fragrant, as if she gather the best spices on the island. I sit forward on a chair and watch her dress, slow, so slow. Then I can’t help myself, I reach over and take her breasts. They full, like ripe mangoes. I want to plant my teeth into them until she burst. But Whisper place her hands over mine and quiver soft, ‘No Lemer, no.’
I try to ease my hands away but she lock hers on top mine.
I spend the afternoon. Whisper gift me four pretty dresses and some shoes. I bathe, try on the dresses and feel – first time – the brush of proper cloth against my skin. Lucky me.
On the way to the parlour in the dusk, lucky me again, Whisper stop suddenly by a semi-demi shop. Chairs, ale, chickens, fruits, vegetables, wines, yams, figs and spices selling, everything everywhere. In a little space in a corner the owner squatting stuffing bread, ham, porter, eggs, cheese and saltfish into a basket. His head shiny black.
‘Mesdames?’ he say, ‘I’m Jean-Pierre from Martinique. What is your pleasure today?’
‘The sheets.’ Whisper point to a heap on a chair. ‘How much?’
As Jean-Pierre rubbing his chin to come up with a figure I spot a dozen brown felt hats pile up on a box.
‘The hats from Martinique too?’
‘How much for one?’
‘Monsieur String sell me for four, but for you pretty ladies, three.’
‘An Englishman. I’m just preparing him a leaving basket.’
‘He leaving St Vincent?’
‘Yes. He catching a boat up north.’
That same night I do a shameful thing. So many felt hats on String bed, so many people spruce in one, I have to have one too before String leave. And for free. But when I break into the house not a single hat there! I smash open the trunk with a big stone and what scatter out more than felt hats? And in a Bible at the bottom of the trunk, what staring me in the face if not £45? Harris Bigga, London, the side of the trunk marked.
When dusk coming on next day I tracking Jean-Pierre. He carrying two heavy baskets on his horse. A house deep in Jennings Valley is where he lead me. What business he have in thick mountains this late?
Two people step out into the dirt yard when they hear the horse trotting. Even in the darkness I make them out: a tall man under a felt hat and a woman. The woman carry one basket inside, the man grab the other.
‘Harris Bigga,’ I shout in the darkness.
The man head turn, so I step forward to greet the runaways. And to ask the price of the hats he selling.
Two journeys more, and my task over. I cross the mountains under a kind Friday moonlight, by morning I arrive in Chateaubelair town. Women and children bathing in the sea, a few fishermen tossing line, none of the talk I expect to hear about a sailing. So is a second trip over the volcano that night to Owia on the windward coast.
My weary body flop down on the beach. I could sleep for a week. Voices wake me before sleep call me home proper. I scramble up and find a fifty-foot Carib canoe about to launch. And in among the Caribs I spot String offering his hand to a pretty woman in a purple dress. Brisbane and Mel watching the launch too. They get my message, soon I can rest my head.
‘String,’ Brisbane yell as the passengers settle. ‘Eva?’
‘I’m off to St Lucia Brisbane,’ String shout back. ‘To finish my report.’
‘You can’t leave, what about the £100 I loaned you?’
‘Someone broke into my home and stole half of it. I gave the rest to Georgina. Thanks for the excellent treatment I had in the Big House.’
‘You saw Georgina?’
‘Sorry Brisbane, we have to leave to avoid the midday sun. My report will give you a glorious mention.’
Eva sit, then give a gentle wave. ‘Goodbye Mr Brisbane.’
The Caribs reach for the oars, and soon all we can see is a speck in the distance.
‘The thief! The drunkard, the rogue! I want my money back.’ Brisbane face swell with anger. ‘He can write that the devil is blue in his report!’
‘Forget String,’ I tell Brisbane, ‘no report coming.’
‘But he was sent to inspect the schools!’
‘No, Brisbane. String is a hat seller. And what he can’t sell he look for payment some another way.’
‘So my £100 is gone?’
‘Yes. All the time you pretending you hope String safe from the Caribs, was the money that concern you.’
‘But he swore he was a Methodist.’
‘An Inspector who finish your brandy, stagger out the Whisper parlour in Kingstown, only visit two schools. And more. Wish Eva good luck with him.’
Brisbane look away and say soft, ‘Eva.’
‘Eva gone, Brisbane.’
He turn to face me. Is a struggle to keep his head level with mine. ‘Come to Diamond tomorrow for your fee. Seven pounds?’
I don’t have to think about it.
‘Give it to June parents to build a house.’
Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library